At just 9, Penn State student Neha Gupta started her charity, Empower Orphans, to help orphaned and abandoned children in the United States and India.
On Tuesday, nine years later, the world saluted her work.
Gupta, a Schreyer Honors College scholar in her first year, received the 2014 International Children’s Peace Prize Award, considered the highest international accolade for a young person.
At a ceremony in The Hague, Netherlands, the Philadelphia resident accepted the award from Netherlands’ King Willem-Alexander, former archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
“Neha’s leadership, vision and work ethic have helped countless orphaned, abandoned and impoverished children, and most remarkably she was just a child herself when she began this work,” Penn State President Eric Barron said in a statement.
“We’re very proud that she has been recognized with the 2014 International Peace Prize, and hope that this visibility will inspire others to also pursue worthy endeavors to benefit humankind.”
Yousafzai, a Pakastani activist for female education who survived being shot, reportedly by the Taliban, won the International Children’s Peace Prize Award in 2013 before earlier this year becoming the youngest Nobel recipient.
Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, spoke Tuesday at Penn State’s Schwab Auditorium.
Schreyer Honors College Dean Christian Brady said he and other Schreyer faculty members were “very proud” and “ecstatic” Tuesday after Gupta was honored.
“She’s been a remarkable young woman,” Brady said. “She deserves all the accolades she’s receiving.”
The college had known of Gupta’s selection since she entered the university in the fall, Schreyer Coordinator of College Relations Beth Kocher Gormley said, adding that keeping the secret until the award ceremony “was pretty hard.”
But the advance knowledge didn’t lessen the emotional impact of Tuesday’s news, especially in light of Gupta’s immediate predecessor, Kocher Gormley said.
“I think it really hits home when you see Malala won it last year,” Kocher Gormley said. “We know how inspirational she is.”
Gupta, an Eberly College of Science scholar entering the premedicine program, started Empower Orphans after making an annual visit to India with her grandparents. During their stay, following family tradition, she helped celebrate birthdays at a local orphanage.
Shocked by the malnutrition, disease, lack of education and bleak futures faced by her friends, who resembled her, she returned to her Philadelphia home and launched her first fundraiser, according to the Children’s Peace Prize website.
That effort from going to door to door and reaching out to friends collected toys for a garage sale, netting $800 for Indian children. She sought more donations from friends, family and the public, and a year later returned to India with $5,000, the start of her charity.
Since then, the organization has raised more than $1.3 million for underprivileged children, helping more than 25,000 worldwide with projects that have included opening libraries, providing health care and promoting education.
“She’s an inspiration to our scholars here: just the potential of what you can do if you put your mind to it at an early age,” Kocher Gormley said. “So we’re looking forward to getting to know her.”
Presented for the 10th time this year, the International Children’s Peace Prize was created by KidsRight, an Amsterdam-based children’s rights organization.
“When you look at the world,” Gupta said on the Children’s Peace Prize website, “you see so much discrepancy between what you have and what others do not. There are many more poor people than rich people. You should not only sympathize with people, you have to empathize, and turn ideas into action.”
In India, Empower Orphans has funded five libraries, four computer labs, a science center and a sewing center, all in schools, according to the Children’s Peace Prize website.
The charity also has sponsored the education of individual children, an eye and dental camp, surgery for polio victims; raised awareness of the risks of cancer from candied tobacco popular among Indian children; and provided water purification, home furnishings and diapers for babies.
Closer to home, Empower Orphans has helped abused and abandoned children in Pennsylvania and worked with hospitals and a school for underprivileged children, according to Children’s Peace Prize.
“The prize is presented annually to an exceptional child whose courageous or otherwise remarkable actions have made a difference in improving children’s rights, which helps children worldwide,” Children’s Peace Prize said on its website.
“The motivation behind the prize is to provide a platform to children to express their ideas and personal involvement in children’s rights.”
Prize recipients, the selection committee said, “must have a clear history of standing up and fighting for the rights of him/herself and other children.
“It is important that the child has an active approach in accomplishing this goal, which has led to a concrete result.”
Gupta, Children’s Peace Prize said, has inspired children in India, America and worldwide to help her through Facebook.
“She has mobilized over a thousand young people in her quest to help those in need, and is proving that children can be change-makers, taking a stand for what they believe in, and making things happen,” the organization said.
Schreyer Associate Dean for Student Affairs Michele Kirsch, who manages the college’s admissions and recruiting, said she meets many outstanding prospective students. For each class, the college accepts only 300 Schreyer Scholars, who represent the top 2 percent of Penn State students academically.
“But she is one who stuck out, even when we met her early in the spring — just very mature, very personable, very humble, very down to earth,” Kirsch said. “Just a delightful young woman.”
In addition to her strong academic record, Kirsch said, Gupta’s charity caught the attention of Schreyer because it fit with the college’s philosophy of expecting students to commit their talents to service.
“She was one of those superstars you identify early on just because of her personality,” Kirsch said.
For her efforts over the years, Gupta has won numerous other awards, including the 2011 World of Children Award, the President’s Volunteer Service Award, the Congressional Award and the National Prudential Spirit of Community award. She has been featured in books and magazines, on TV and online.
“Neha’s altruism and leadership in service to others presents a powerful and positive force that embodies not only the philanthropic energy of Penn State, but also the desire to be better, to do more, and to have a meaningful and lasting impact on the world around us,” Brady said in a news release.
One International Children’s Peace Prize nominee worked on improving Russia’s gay rights laws. The other established a project to stop hunger in Somalia.
In addition to her prize, Gupta received a 100,000-euro grant for projects associated with her organization.
“Neha’s devotion to children is inspirational,” Schreyer Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Nichola Gutgold said in a news release. “Her commitment to making the world a better place for orphans is so much of what the Schreyer Honors College celebrates.”
Kirsch said Schreyer will work with Barron’s office to plan a campus reception in Gupta’s honor.
“We’re thrilled, very excited for her and her family because they are such nice people,” Kirsch said. “She worked hard, and she did it all for the right reasons, not just for the recognition.
“It’s nice to see someone who worked hard be recognized internationally because she deserves it.”